There might not be a more creative jazz singer alive right now than Kurt Elling. He has the two crucial elements it takes to rise to the top of his world: a stellar voice driven by a fearlessness with what he does with it. Score the highest marks on both counts. As a vocalist, Elling's instrument is everything. He can take it in different directions but never lose the essence of who he is: a muscular master singer that brings alive whatever songs he chooses. It is almost uncanny how he never misses.
It's called greatness and he's had it since first recording. Now that Elling is well into a long career, it may seem second nature, but it's obvious he doesn't take the gift for granted. All nine songs on The Gate come eerily alive in his able hands, and cover the waterfront with stunning originality.
Enter fearlessness, and that's where this album really takes off. For starters, it's produced by Don Was, known more for his work with Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones than anything in the jazz world. But Was crosses over without losing a beat, and shows how fresh ears can often lead to exciting new accomplishments. Working with an inventive quintet, every song is like a world unto itself. Whether it's Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Outâ€ or Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady,â€ the Beatles "Norweigan Woodâ€ or Herbie Hancock's "Come Running To Me,â€ Kurt Elling twists our hearts into pretzels, warms them considerably and adds salt where needed. By the time he is through, on the 9-minute original "Nighttown, Lady Bright,â€ it's tempting to ask, "Who was that masked man?â€ It feels like a journey has just ended.
Jazz may not be at the top of the culture right now, but for Kurt Elling he is still traipsing the mountaintops. With soul patch shining and his voice a direct link to secrets we all want to know, listen to these lessons of love.